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Crowdsourcing your strategy may sound crazy. But a few pioneering companies are starting to do just that, boosting organizational alignment in the process. Should you join them?
In 2009, Wikimedia1 launched a special wiki—one dedicated to the organization’s own strategy. Over the next two years, more than 1,000 volunteers generated some 900 proposals for the company’s future direction and then categorized, rationalized, and formed task forces to elaborate on them. The result was a coherent strategic plan detailing a set of beliefs, priorities, and related commitments that together engendered among participants a deep sense of dedication to Wikimedia’s future. Through the launch of several special projects and the continued work of self-organizing teams dedicated to specific proposals, the vision laid out in the strategic plan is now unfolding.
Wikimedia’s effort to crowdsource its strategy probably sounds like an outlier—after all, the company’s very existence rests on collaborative content creation. Yet over the past few years, a growing number of organizations have begun experimenting with opening up their strategy processes to constituents who were previously frozen out of strategic direction setting. Examples include 3M, Dutch insurer AEGON, global IT services provider HCL Technologies, Red Hat (the leading provider of Linux software), and defense contractor Rite-Solutions.
While such efforts are at different stages, executives at organizations that are experimenting with more participatory modes of strategy development cite two major benefits. One is improving the quality of strategy by pulling in diverse and detailed frontline perspectives that are typically overlooked but can make the resulting plans more insightful and actionable. The second is building enthusiasm and alignment behind a company’s strategic direction—a critical component of long-term organizational health, effective execution, and strong financial performance that is all too rare, according to research we and our colleagues in McKinsey’s organization practice have conducted.
Our objective in this article isn’t to present a definitive road map for opening up the strategy process; it’s simply too early for one to exist. We’d also be the first to acknowledge that for most organizations, “social” strategy setting represents a significant departure from the status quo and should be experimented with carefully—whether that means trying it out in a few areas or creating meaningful opportunities for participation in the context of a more traditional strategy process. (For more on intelligent experimentation, see sidebar, “Collaborative strategic planning: Three observations.”) Nonetheless, we hope that by sketching a picture of some management innovations under way, we will stir the thinking of senior executives eager to benefit from experimenting with such approaches. If you’ve ever wondered how to inject more diversity and expertise into your strategy process, to get leaders closer to the operational implications of their decisions, or to avoid the experience-based biases and orthodoxies that inevitably creep into small groups at the top, it may be time to try shaking things up.
Lessons from the fringe
The best way to describe the possibilities of community-based strategy approaches is to show them in action. Two examples demonstrate the lengths to which some companies have already gone in broadening their strategy processes, as well as the degree to which the executives who participated are convinced of the benefits.
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Arne Gast is a principal in McKinsey’s Amsterdam office; Michele Zanini is a consultant in the Boston office and cofounder of the Management Innovation eXchange (MIX), a Web-based open-innovation project dedicated to reinventing management. McKinsey is a knowledge partner of the MIX. The authors would like to offer special thanks to Raul Lansink for his advice on and contributions to this article.